Lines 1-370 Summary and Analysis
Beowulf: the protagonist of the poem
Hrothgar: the Danish king who requests Beowulf’s help in slaying the monster, Grendel
Grendel: the monster who has kept Hrothgar in misery for 12 years
Wulfgar: born Swedish, now the Danish king Hrothgar’s herald
The poem opens with a genealogy of the ruling Danes beginning with Shild, moving to his son Beo, then to Beo’s son Healfdane, and on to Healfdane’s three sons—Hergar, Hrothgar, and Halga the Good—and his daughter, Yrs. Hrothgar’s building of Herot for his armies, as the ruling Danish king, is explained. The monster, Grendel, annoyed by the noise of the building and then the soldiers living in Herot, was awakened. He arrived when the soldiers were sleeping and attacked, killing 30 of them. There were tears and laments, but he attacked the next night as well. The soldiers realized they must stay away from Herot in order to be safe and did so for 12 years, much to Hrothgar’s grief.
Beowulf, in Geatland, hears of this and vows to kill Grendel. He outfits his boats and sails with a band of 14 of his bravest soldiers. Once landing upon the Danish shore, they are challenged by the sentry who eventually leads them to Herot himself, after hearing Beowulf’s explanation of how they have come to kill Grendel. There, Hrothgar’s herald (Wulfgar) asks who they are. Beowulf responds that he must speak to Hrothgar to give him the answer to that question. Wulfgar rushes to his king to urge him to receive Beowulf and his men.
Discussion and Analysis
The poem is set approximately 200 years before its performances. People were impressed with stories of kings and wars in their history, fictional or factual. The genealogy is apparently for the purpose of “setting the stage” and establishing Hrothgar’s credentials. It also establishes Beowulf’s bravery in coming to kill the monster with a band of only 14 men and making the voyage without trepidation. Grendel’s inherent perniciousness is implied by the explanation that he is descended from Cain, a fallen Biblical character. The stage is now set for a poem worth staying to hear, with royalty, warriors, and at least one battle between good and evil.